Among all factors affecting successful second language acquisition, aptitude and motivation have the strongest correlation with positive learning outcomes. This may not come as much of a shock to anyone actively engaged in learning a language. For teachers, though, this puts a huge damper on the ego. Surely, if I provide my students with the highest quality lessons, with perfectly tailored input and careful assessment, my lessons should give them everything they need to make progress! Unfortunately for the teacher, language acquisition is a process of students building their own new language system. The student’s internal construction of a language system is guided much more by his own internal state than by any external factors, such as classroom instruction. If the student has good aptitude and strong motivation, he will succeed; lacking those attributes, he’ll make very little progress at all.
By aptitude, we mean the learner’s innate capacity to develop language skills. These sorts of skills include the ability to recognize and use novel speech sounds, the ability to analyze language grammatically and apply that knowledge, and the capacity to commit vocabulary and rules to memory. When defined in this way, these kinds of cognitive skills have obvious application to language ability; one can hardly learn a language without having some awareness of language structure, or without absorbing thousands of new words and sentence structures.
Actually measuring those skills is another matter entirely. Although there have been a number of efforts, such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) and Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB), it’s not clear that those tests measure language skills in an unbiased fashion. The MLAT, for example, tests examinees’ phonological coding ability by asking them to use a notation system for English phonemes. Given the wide variety of accents among native English speakers, it’s hard to imagine that a single test will be as valid for an Alabaman as for a Dubliner, to say nothing of testing speakers of other languages.
Even accepting the validity of aptitude testing, it’s not clear how the results could be applied meaningfully. Should children with low aptitude scores be encouraged to choose courses in Physics over courses in German? Would it be useful to divide students into high-scoring classrooms and low-scoring classrooms? Should we form remedial pronunciation classes for students with lower scores in phonological coding ability? Although it might make the teacher’s life easier, I’m not sure we want a school system that tells students, “Sorry, you just don’t have the natural ability required for French verb conjugation—let’s sign you up for Chem101 instead.” Better, I think, to let the students’ inclinations and interests guide their studies, and perhaps waste a few hundred class hours on “hopeless” bilinguals.
Second to aptitude, motivation ranks strongest in its effect on language learning outcomes. Again, this is reasonable and intuitive, and common knowledge to anyone who has visited or taken a high school level foreign language class. Students learn those subjects that interest them, when they are ready to learn them—no study I’ve seen yet has shown evidence of a student sleeping through Spanish and waking up conversant in the pluperfect tense.
With motivation, as with aptitude, there is a serious problem of measurement. Research into motivation tends to use self-reported data, with all of its well-documented flaws. Nearly any person living abroad in a foreign-language environment will answer in a survey that they are highly interested in learning the majority language around them. In my experience, very few English-speaking foreigners living in Japan are willing to put in the time and effort required to attain more than basic conversational Japanese. Fewer still will dedicate the hundreds of hours necessary to become literate enough to read a newspaper or fill in official forms. Yet every foreigner I know claims that they are motivated to learn Japanese, if only they had the time.
My own view is that motivation toward language learning should be seen as a priority in relation to other parts of a person’s life. Rather than thinking of motivation toward learning as an independent variable, which should examine whether a student is motivated enough to prioritize language learning over other activities. English-speakers in Japan who don’t study Japanese often say they don’t have time for study, which is to say that other things in their life have a higher priority. They would rather network with colleagues, unwind with an English-language book, or catch up on their sleep than study Japanese. Those things are more important to that person than studying a few kanji, and clearly, based on the choices they are making, they expect to receive more benefit (financial, social, mental) from those activities than from Japanese. It’s not laziness, it’s cost-benefit analysis. And they may be right, for all I know! I’m certainly not seeing much financial gain from speaking Japanese.
In my previous job at an English school in Fukuoka, I taught a lot of kids. When teaching children, our school was not just competing with other English schools. We were competing with Pokémon, Anpanman, One Piece, and every other fascinating distraction in their environment. As teachers, we compete with every other influence in a student’s life for a piece of their attention. If we’re really good, we succeed in shifting their priorities a little, putting a few minutes of daily English study ahead of reading this week’s Shōnen Jump. That, in my mind, is what it means to be a teacher, what it means to motivate students. We have to make our students want to learn, and more than that, we have to make them want to learn more than they want to do other things.